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Italy Is Safe From, and for, Jihadis

It turns out not being attacked by the Islamic State is nothing to be proud of.

A flock of starlings flies over St. Peter's dome on Nov. 10, 2004. (PAOLO COCCO/AFP/Getty Images)
A flock of starlings flies over St. Peter's dome on Nov. 10, 2004. (PAOLO COCCO/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, a young asylum-seeker from Gambia was arrested in Naples after the local police were made aware of a video circulating on the messaging service Telegram in which he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Reportedly, he had also been discussing the possibility of carrying out a vehicle-ramming attack on Italian soil.

It was the latest evidence that Italy is home to a sizable jihadi presence. But it also raises a question that many security analysts consider a mystery: How has Italy — unlike most of Western Europe, including France, Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom — managed to avoid becoming the site of a jihadi terrorist attack?

Many Italians like to suggest their government is simply better at combating terrorism than their peers in Western Europe. The true answer is more complicated — and considerably less flattering.

Italian security forces do manage to catch plenty of jihadis before they strike. In the first two and a half months of 2018, at least 27 residents were expelled from Italy for suspected terrorist activities, per figures provided by the Milan-based Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). Just between late March and early April, Digos — the Italian police’s anti-terrorism division — conducted a wave of raids and arrests. The police also raided what has been described as a “fake document factory” in Naples; authorities said the fake documents were supplied to members of the Islamic State across Europe.

Some analysts suggest that Italy’s record of successful arrests is the product of decades of experience dealing with organized crime and homegrown terrorist groups, most notably the Communist Red Brigades and the right-wing NAR. The Economist once described it as “the mafia effect”: During the so-called Years of Lead, when a wave of political violence hit the country between the late 1960s and early 1980s, Italy’s police and intelligence agencies mastered the skills for surveilling organized criminals and terrorist organizations and their exploitation of legal gray areas.

Italy’s legal institutions also make it relatively easy to crack down on terrorists, says Arturo Varvelli, a senior research fellow at ISPI. The country has “extensive wiretapping or bugging laws,” he says, making it easy for the police to monitor suspects. Italy can also more easily deport suspected jihadis than France, Belgium, or the U.K., because so many of them are not citizens. Unlike other countries in the European Union with more prominent colonial histories, Italy has begun experiencing immigration from Muslim countries only recently. Per a recent estimate by ISMU Foundation, only 40 percent of the country’s 2.5 million resident Muslims hold Italian citizenship.

This has put Italian authorities in the position of often being able to act upon relatively minor alarms. Authorities, for instance, can detain non-EU citizens living in Italy simply for expressing radical opinions on Facebook — which, of course, would be impossible in the case of an Italian. In recent years, says Francesco Strazzari, a security and international relations expert at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy had a policy of “when in doubt, deport.” “Deporting a noncitizen is much easier than jailing a citizen,” he adds.

But there’s a problem with crediting Italy’s tough-on-terrorism approach for the country’s relative safety: Plenty of known Italy-based jihadis have successfully mounted attacks elsewhere in Europe.

One of the three terrorists who carried out the 2017 London Bridge attack, for instance, was Italian. Youssef Zaghba, born in Morocco to an Italian mother and a Moroccan father, had lived in Bologna with his Italian family until 2016, and Italian authorities were aware of his radical sympathies: In early 2016, the police had prevented him from boarding a plane to Turkey, fearing he planned to join the Islamic State in Syria, but lacked enough evidence to jail him and, since he was a citizen, could not expel him.

The terrorist behind the 2016 Christmas market attack in Berlin also came from Italy: Anis Amri, a Tunisian citizen, reached Italy by boat when he was a teenager in 2011. He had spent four years in an Italian jail for petty crimes. Italian authorities believe that Amri was radicalized while in jail and sought to deport him to Tunisia but failed. Amri moved to Berlin (illegally, since he had an expulsion order) in 2015 and was ultimately shot by local police in Sesto San Giovanni, a town near Milan. (After his death, Italian police discovered that he still had jihadi contacts in the country, some of whom were recently arrested.) Ahmed Hannachi, the terrorist who stabbed two young women in Marseille, France, in 2017, was also Tunisian and had lived in Italy in the town of Aprilia with an Italian wife between 2008 and 2014. 

In other cases, terrorists who attacked other European countries received support from Italy-based jihadis. One of the masterminds behind the 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested in Brussels the following year, had obtained fake documents from a counterfeiter in Naples. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who drove a truck into a crowd on Bastille Day in Nice, France, in 2016, had often visited Italy and had ties with Italy-based extremists; his friend and suspect accomplice Chokri Chafroud was arrested in Italy soon after the attack. And after the recent raid in Naples, Italian authorities believe that some of the terrorists involved in the 2016 Brussels bombings had also received fake documents in Italy.

So why are Italy’s jihadis so reluctant to strike at home but likely to contribute to attacks somewhere else? A possible explanation is that they go abroad precisely to avoid Italy’s domestic monitoring when they are preparing to stage an attack. Once a radicalized person leaves Italy and moves to another European country, the Italian government has shown little aptitude at coordinating an international response, so the suspect “can get lost in a larger flow,” says Varvelli, the ISPI researcher.

Italian authorities have been known to signal the potential danger of some individuals to their neighbors, as happened with Zaghba, the London Bridge attacker. Italian authorities put Zaghba’s name in the Schengen Information System, the Europe-wide security database. But that wasn’t enough to put British authorities on alert, and Italy made no further outreach. After the attack, Scotland Yard told the Guardian that Zaghba “was not a police or MI5 subject of interest.” To some extent, information sharing is an “endemic problem” in the EU, says Varvelli. “By definition, security information is the kind of information that countries are less likely to share,” he says. But Italy has never been stellar at navigating international bureaucracy. And jihadis, for their part, seem to have learned that if their activities in Italy don’t rise to the level of triggering immediate arrest, they can use the country as a base to plan terrorism abroad.

Another possible explanation is that jihadis simply don’t see Italy as an attractive target. The country isn’t symbolically resonant for terrorists because “Italy doesn’t really have a foreign policy,” says Strazzari, the Pisa-based scholar. (The country didn’t participate in the recent strikes on Syria in retaliation for chemical weapons use.) When the Islamic State references “Rome” as a target, it tends to be as a stand-in for Christianity more generally, rather than a reference to the actual city. By contrast, the Islamic State treats military powers such as France and Britain as direct enemies in the Levant.

There’s also a logistics issue. Because of its geography, Italy has long been a transit point from Arab countries to Western Europe and, thanks to its organized crime, is also one of the world’s epicenters for forged documents. Historically, international terrorists tended to see Italy “more as mooring point, a logistics base from which you move to attack elsewhere,” Strazzari argues. This was true of Palestinian groups in the 1970s and is likely true of Islamic State-inspired cells today.

“It’s not the front line — it’s the sidelines of the conflict,” he says. “That’s the whole point of having sidelines: You need them quiet.”

Anna Momigliano is a journalist based in Milan. Twitter: @annamomi

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